Saturday, 22 October 2011

ALEC in Plunderland

The news is no longer new, that Dr Liam Fox has resigned as British Secretary of State for Defence  (14 Oct 2011).  He was compelled to do so as a result of revelations over his close relationship with Adam Werrity, who headed a former charity called Atlantic Bridge.  Though holding no official position with the government, Mr Werrity advertised himself as an advisor to Dr Fox and appears to have accepted payments in exchange for placing interested business parties in contact with the defence secretary.

The UK's Charity Commission criticised Atlantic Bridge for "promoting a political party policy" ie Conservative, in contrast to advancing any charitable purpose.  The organisation was given one year in which to amend its practices but elected instead to close down on 11 Sept 2011.

A number of Atlantic Bridge's sponsors were found to be headquartered in the United States, among them the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Until recently ALEC enjoyed an envied place in the constellation of US pressure groups and think tanks espousing the neoliberal cause, being at once immensely influential and almost completely unknown to the public.  Its members include such luminaries of corporate America as Exxon-Mobil, BP, Pfizer, Wal-Mart, Coca Cola, Kraft Foods, State Farm Insurance, and the Koch Brothers, driving force behind the Tea Party movement.

Of late ALEC has become the focus of considerable interest, though almost none of this attention emanates from elected bodies or agencies charged with a duty of oversight.  Rather, a number of journalists and websites have begun to raise questions over ALEC's role in shaping policy across a broad spectrum of  political and economic interests.

To examine ALEC and understand its importance, we must first retrace the sullied footsteps of Mr Werrity and Dr Fox back across that Atlantic Bridge, from Westminster to Wall Street.  Having done so, we will enter a world- let's call it Plunderland- where the general rule seems to be, as formulated long ago by Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean".

In that spirit, you are about to learn the meaning of "democracy"- in Plunderland.

Now, imagine if you will that you are a Republican lawmaker in a state whose legislature is controlled by your party.  You are approached by persons you admire, with an invitation to attend a conference under the aegis of ALEC.  And let us situate that gathering at some plush and exclusive enclave- Palm Springs, for example.

There you and your spouse will be met and looked after (families are distinctly welcome)  by business leaders whose names ring with the reassurance of real power- Fortune 500 executives and their staffs.

You will socialise- play golf on exquisitely maintained courses, dine on the most blissful fare, and exchange neatly patented views with the very men and women who concocted them. You will be flattered and cajoled.  You will be welcomed into circles you have always aspired to enter- assuming you were not born there, a condition of privilege discreetly enjoyed by many state office-holders.  Finally, you will be showered with political support in the form of crucial campaign donations and endorsements.

And really, all you have to do is attend a two-hour meeting with friendly representatives of, let's say, the commercial prison industry.

At this meeting you will be presented with a handsome, well-written, entirely serviceable piece of legislation.  It may contain the word "reform" in its title.  (Again, think Humpty Dumpty)

The matter at hand could involve a perfectly reasonable tightening of immigration law.  Or the justified imposition of harsher, more restrictive criminal sentences.  The bill may mandate the laudable establishment of profit-making industries in a state penitentiary system, or the withdrawal of wasteful educational services to undeserving prisoners.

But whatever the avowed goal of the prefabricated legislation, you may be sure its passage will result in enhanced revenue and power for those companies which drafted the law.

Of course, you as a Republican representative (or conservative/opportunistic Democrat) will find yourself in complete agreement with the provisions of the bill.  Naturally, your expertise will be consulted by the panel of corporate lawyers sitting with you.  You may even be urged to supply textual revisions, as evidence of your own commitment and sense of official duty.

But basically, you will be holding in your hands a polished piece of legislation entirely drafted by a group of business corporations.

And you are eager to cooperate.  How can a conflict even arise?  Their views are your views.  Why, this language (taps cover of document with a sense of urgency) captures the essence of your beliefs.

At the same time, several new friends are waiting for you in the sunshine of the first tee.

The pledges to your next campaign- every two years- every two years!- are rolling across the table.

New horizons beckon.  You think of your family.  Your career.  The Future.  (Hiya, Humpty)  Your bank account.  Your stock portfolio.  Those loans.

Are you going to hesitate?  Are you seriously going to demur?

Will you walk out on this offering, this gift- the crystallisation of democracy as you have come to understand it?

Will you walk out on your principles?

Will you walk out on yourself?

No. What you are going to do is thank everyone in the room who laboured so long and hard, investing resources and effort in this vital project, so that Georgia prisons can be brought into line with those of Texas and California.

Then, when the conference has ended, you are going to go home and stand up in your state legislature to introduce ALEC's bill as your own, with your name in bold print above a list of enthusiastic co-sponsors.  The names of the prison industry corporations, their executives, attorneys and shareholders, will appear nowhere on the bill.  No one will be told the source of the legislation.  Many of your colleagues will not even realise you've been away.  A few may comment enviously on your healthy tan.  You may impart one or two putting tips newly gleaned from a noteworthy pro.

And the bill will go through, because the votes are there.  Your party controls the outcome.  And one more piece of pre-crafted for-profit legislation will have become law, in Plunderland.

By the Council's own reckoning, across the United States each year a thousand ALEC-generated measures are steered through committee and onto the floor of state legislatures.  Fully a fifth of these bills are voted onto the statute books, a considerable achievement in a system in which proposals are routinely shelved for further study, review, discussion, research and protracted negotiation (when not simply killed outright through lack of support).

Yes, ALEC gets the results it pays for.

It is worth emphasising that what I have described is not, or is no longer, an instance of lobbying.  Lobbying occurs when industry representatives make suggestions or demands of officials and legislators.  This can be at times a dirty affair, mired in the revolving door, influence peddling culture of American politics.

ALEC isn't peddling influence.  ALEC is writing the laws, directly and (almost) openly.  It is a national, state-by-state legislature, creating facts on the ground in a manner analogous to the Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

ALEC colonises the formal democratic process, hollows it out and installs its own legal framework of deregulation and ruthless profit-making initiatives.  This process serves the most aggressive and far-reaching ambitions of today's multinational business corporations.

Significantly, ALEC devotes little of its energies to the arena of Federal legislation and enforcement.  A dollar buys more cooperation at the state level, and as long as Washington declines to interfere in its operations (and there is no likelihood of that eventuality, given the well-established loyalties of Congress, the White House, and the present Supreme Court majority) ALEC is able to quietly impose a coherent, mutually reinforcing body of law across the country.  Each state is thus spurred to enact "reforms" in conformance with the latest precedents, as new ALEC-sponsored conferences spring up in other enchanted oases off-limits to all but the select- and selected- few.

I chose for my example the prison industrial complex because so many of the terrible circumstances facing US inmates and their families result from the socio-legal agenda of profit-seeking corporations.  But ALEC in its multiple applications straddles a range of overlapping territories.  It would be difficult to identify an aspect of American life which has been spared the zealous interventions of the Council.  From the publicly funded privatisation of education to the wretched business of health care, through the wilds of banking deregulation, insurance collusion, pharmaceutical monopoly, chemical, nuclear, oil and gas conglomerates-  ALEC is there, offering the hand of friendship and a conveniently packaged set of laws, to elected officials.

At this point you may find yourself asking, is this a conspiracy?

The very term has become so shopworn and discredited through casual or strident misuse that its introduction here may risk serious injury to reasoned discussion.  At the present pass, conspiracy- like that perpetually troublesome word "democracy"- has come to mean just about whatever the speaker chooses.

But certainly ALEC doesn't welcome the sort of searchlight currently being shone into its activities.  While not exactly a clandestine society, the organisation has always conducted its business in a fashion some way short of common standards of transparency.

Still, we are conditioned to imagine, if we even allow for the possibility, that conspiracies occur covertly, in the shadows, hidden from view.  They simply can't take place out in the open- in the pure, dazzling, antiseptic sunlight of Palm Springs.

Then again, we've long known that America and capitalism itself are run by corporations.  They spend exorbitant sums reminding us of the fact, insisting that we work for them, buy their products, and regurgitate their ideology.  How then can their actions be called conspiratorial, when they lack the essential elements of secrecy and shame?

As for inscribing the devouring imperative of their own profit into the civil, commercial and criminal codes, in doing so they can hardly be said to have taken on the role of outlaws.  The immunity conferred by their wealth and power absolves them of traditional charges of corruption.  The people and entities which form ALEC do not after all tamper with a system, so much as define it.

How then are we permitted to speak of conspiracy?

I think the answer lies in the fact that, operating in the daylight, ALEC nevertheless plays its hand through subterfuge and distraction.

There are types of confidence games which can only be executed in sunshine.  Daylight confers innocence.  It assures us that we can see and monitor the card manipulator's whirling fingers.  Were he to offer a chance in the darkness, who would take a turn?  We'd never fall at midnight for the tricks we accept at noon.

The daylight in which ALEC carries out its mission is a vital ingredient of success, adding paradoxically one more veil, one more gleaming layer of mystique, to an already formidable capability.

There is this, too, if we are to consider whether to name such a force in our lives, conspiracy.  As a self-appointed legislative chamber, ALEC cannot be dislodged through the ballot box.  Its corporate mainstays are invulnerable to constitutional remedies such as referendum, recall and impeachment.  Though their gatherings mimic democratic processes (in the way that corporate boardrooms and shareholder meetings echo through inverted relations the public assembly of citizens) ALEC simply buys seats and votes,  locking into place legal structures which are exploitative and oppressive, being as they are beneficial to elites and deeply coercive for all others.

Whether ALEC is or is not definitively a vehicle for conspiracy is almost a metaphysical question, which it were better to leave in the deft hands of Mr Dumpty himself.  But it is clear at least to me, that in its direct assumption of powers of government ALEC employs the classic methods of a political conspiracy, and fully deserves the scrutiny presently aimed at its machinations.

America is a vastly imperfect country, one whose faults are freshly exposed with each new claim to a divine mandate or superior social order.  The bloody hand print of history is found everywhere at the scene.  But in speaking of ALEC and its minions, it must be said in defence of the republic and its still living possibilities for humanity, that no country deserves to be ruled in this way, by such people, and for such a purpose.

Not even Plunderland.

For detailed information and analysis, go to  where you will find a comprehensive archive of ALEC-drafted bills passed into law throughout the US.  They are arranged according to subject and are free to download.

The second paragraph of this article originally asserted that the Charity Commission stripped Atlantic Bridge of its status under rules governing such bodies.  This was incorrect, and the article has been revised to reflect the fact.

Tom Hall
Dublin Ireland
22 Oct 2011

Tuesday, 11 October 2011